Weary from the over-night bus, we stopped for breakfast in Hong Ha, just at the northern tip of Southern Vietnam. While I was unsuspectingly sipping my morning coffee I was talked into joining a tour to learn all about Vietnam's history surrounding the Vietnam War. Keen to learn about this sometime I turned out to be the only person on the tour so learnt loads - especially as my guide Hua, couldn't stop talking! This was good as he was very passionate about his subject, though some facts do vary to those I have since read, so some of the below may not be quite accurate but gives the general idea:
After WWII, Ho Chi Minh - whose Viet Minh forces already controlled large parts of the country - declared Vietnam independent. In 1954 North and South Vietnam split into 2 countries at the 17th parallel (at the Ben Hai river), and it was agreed through the Geneva Convention to hold a joint General Election for both North and South - the North, lead by Communist Ho Chi Minh, and the Capitalist South ruled by the King's Government. However, this never happened as the southern government was overthrown and the new ruler, Ngo Dinh Diem (a anti-Communist, Catholic leader) insisted that he had never signed that agreement. The Hien Luong Bridge, as seen in my photos, built in 1952, was the only crossing point along the 90 mile stretch of Ben Hai River leading to the mountains. The Border Control was located here and local people were given 55 days to choose between the Northern Communist rule or South Capitalist before the crossing was closed. From 1954 - 75, the Ben Hai River served as the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), 90Km west of Hue, consisted of an area 5Km either side of the demarcation line where no troops were allowed to enter. Ho Chi Minh's troops originally managed to transfer men and ammunition across at night, along Ho Chi Minh's Trail, but when this was no longer possible they infiltrated South Vietnam from Cambodia.
Around 1960, the Hanoi government changed its policy of opposition to the Diem regime from one of 'political struggle' to one of 'armed struggle'. The National Liberation Front (NLF), a Communist guerrilla group better known as the Viet Cong was founded to fight against Diem. A brutal ruler, Diem was assassinated in 1963 by his own troops. After Hanoi ordered the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units to infiltrate the South in 1964, the situation for the Saigon regime became desperate. In 1965 the USA committed its first combat troops, soon joined by soldiers from South Korea, Australia, Thailand and New Zealand. These troops set-up many bases along the DMZ and I visited one post at Doc Mieu. These troops removed all vegetation from the DMZ and posted lookouts along the line.
As Vietnam celebrated the Lunar New Year in 1968, the Viet Cong launched a deadly surprise offensive (the Tet Offensive), marking a crucial turning point in the war. Many Americans, who had for years believed their government's insistence that the USA was winning, started demanding a negotiated end to the war. The Paris Agreements, signed in 1973, provided for a cease-fire, the total withdrawal of US combat forces and the release of American prisoners-of-war.
Some statistics for Vinh Linh area in North Vietnam (I visited) years 1965-72:
- 700,000+ bombs dropped on
- 231 were chemical bombs
- 102 Napan
- 1352 B52's
- 531 villages destroyed
- 5117 die
- 4,200 injured
- 15,656 houses destroyed
- 10,762 animals destroyed
In total over 3.5 million people died as a direct result of this war - 1.5 million were civilians.
Now another interesting point here is that Ho Chi Minh actually travelled the world for 16 year in order to gain the knowledge and experience he got to so successfully lead his party - so that is exactly what I am doing, but condensing it into one year - so watch out Mr Blair!!
In this area of Vinh Linh, along the northern edge of DMZ, a series of 114 tunnels were built to protect people and supplies during the bombings. Over 500 people lived in the small tunnels built at 12m, 15m and 23m depths. Hua took me to these tunnels where we were able to walk through and see the cramped conditions that people were forced to live in during this time.
A scenic drive back through the Vietnamese countryside, along the paddy fields to Hong Ha for my connecting bus was fantastic. Even had a quick stop at the sea when driving along the coastal road.
On arrival in the bus in Hue, I made the huge mistake of reading my Lonely Planet as the door of the bus opened and suddenly 3 men were upon me, clambering over the driver's seat, trying to sell me a room in their Guest House - not what I had expected but luckily the place I was looking to stay at was there and all turned out fine, although I will be much stronger next time and look like I know where I am going so as not to get accosted again!
Hue is known for its opulent tombs of the Nguyen emperors and its grand, crumbling citadel. Hue served as Vietnam's political capital from 1802-1945 under the 13 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. Traditionally, the city has been one of Vietnam's cultural, religious and educational centers. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its main attractions lie along the northern side of the Song Huong River (Perfume River) while most tourists stay on the south.
Dare I say I did not visit any of the tombs, but I did wander around the moated citadel which was constructed by Emperor Gia Long, starting in 1804. The emperor's official functions were carried out in the Imperial Enclosure, a 'citadel' within the citadel. Inside the 6m-high, 2.5Km long wall is a surreal world of deserted gardens and ceremonial halls, and finding a way out of it is like walking through a maze!
I was very lucky though, and stumbled on a procession taking place involving loads pf people dressed in traditional costume, ornately decorated elephants and a 'king' being carried on a chair to a shrine in the mountains where he worshipped and returned to town so I saw them twice. Finding out what it was all about was hard, but something to do with Hue having the last dynasty in Vietnam and a similar event also occurs in France??? Anyone any wiser than me?? Needless to say, the week after was a whole week of celebration at the Hue Festival 2006 and this was quite a fancy event as warm-up.